The Man Who Won the Republican Party Before Trump Did

Pat buchannan

when mr. buchanan announced his campaign for president in 1991, the world looked very different than it had a few years earlier. the fall of the berlin wall and the dissolution of the soviet union brought the cold war to a sudden end. The geopolitical reality that had governed US politics for nearly 50 years and defined the Cold War conservative movement led by Reagan disappeared overnight. Mr. Buchanan understood that a new conservatism was possible, or rather, an old conservatism renewed for a new era.

mr. buchanan found a freedom at the end of the cold war. For decades, that geopolitical battle had led to a widespread belief among Americans that the country had to actively engage with the world to stop the spread of communism, had to embrace a more open and pluralistic society to model Western rectitude, had to affirmatively embrace the ideas of democracy and freedom and, eventually, equality.

when the cold war came to an end, mr. Buchanan saw an opportunity to break the ties of those commitments. At the very moment when democratic triumphalism was in full swing and commentators were musing about the end of history, he began to question whether democracy was really the best form of government. “the american press is infatuated to the point of intoxication with ‘democracy,'” he wrote in 1991. to prove his point, he compared the marine corps and corporations like ibm to the federal government. “Only the latter is governed by democratic, not autocratic, principles. however, who would choose the latter as the higher institution?”

It also harkened back to pre-Cold War foreign policy. While Bush’s approval ratings soared to unprecedented heights during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq (they would be second only to his son’s approval rating after the 9/11 attacks), Mr. Buchanan denounced the invasion and Bush’s plans to build a “new world order.” his presidential campaign even borrowed the slogan “america first” from the anti-intervention group that had opposed the us. participation in World War II, a provocative move, given that the group had been tainted by its ties to anti-Semites such as aviator Charles Lindbergh.

However, Mr. Buchanan’s retro politics were also thoroughly modern. he built his political reputation not through service but through the media, a novel approach for a presidential candidate. in 1982 he debuted as a regular panelist on the new pbs series “the mclaughlin group”, a roundtable show that eventually drew millions of viewers. That year, he also became a host of the fledgling CNN show “Crossfire.” The show pitted him against liberal commentator Tom Braden in a weekly left-right brawl. it quickly became one of cnn’s highest rated shows.

went to pat buchanan, the energetic, anti-democratic, outrageous, and race-provocative figure americans knew throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. they came to know him not in the echo chamber of right-wing media, but through mainstream political programming, the site, in fact, where modern right-wing scholarship would be born in the 1990s. some of today’s most notable right-wing voices became household names not not on fox news, but on cable news channels and political comedy shows like bill maher’s “politically incorrect.” (Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson began their television careers at CNN, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter at MSNBC.)

but mr. Buchanan was not content to be a TV star. he wanted to be in the arena, to compete for power in the national spotlight of a presidential campaign. Routinely shifting his hosting chair on the campaign trail, he helped build the revolving door between pundits and the presidency that now characterizes Republican politics in the United States.

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